INDIAN | AMERICA’S FIRST MOTORCYCLE – THE GOLDEN POWERPLUS ERA

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A rare peak inside the early days of the engineering dept. at Indian– year unknown.

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Charles B. Franklin joined Indian in 1914, and was the first ever formally trained engineer on staff since the motorcycle firm officially opened its doors in 1901. Franklin’s background in engineering, as well as racing, gave Indian someone expertly qualified for the position. Born in Ireland in 1886, Franklin was a graduate of the Dublin College of Science in 1908, then joined the engineering department of Dublin’s municipal government. He was passionate about motorcycling, personally owning several makes and models before finally fixing his sights on Indian in 1910. Franklin entered several local motorcycle competitions where his riding ability and success in the events brought him to the attention to the UK Indian importer, Billy Wells. He was a member of the famous Indian racing team that swept the 1911 Isle of Man TT, gaining second place behind Oliver Godfrey, and in front of Arthur Moorhouse, in the historic first 1-2-3 finish for Indian.

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1916 Indian Powerplus 1000 cc motorcycle

A brief primer on the Indian Powerplus–

1907 was a major milestone year for Indian– for it’s when the iconic American motorcycle company introduced the first of its V-twin engines.  They continued to improve upon the design, and marked themselves as leading innovators when in 1911 Indian introduced the next generation of the Powerplus– OHV (overhead valve), four-valves-per-cylinder racers.   In 1916, Indian ushered in their widely popular 61 cu.in. (998cc) flathead V-twin.  The powerful engine distributed its power through a three-speed, hand-change gearbox, with foot-operated clutch and all-chain drive.

The side-valve engine design of the Indian PowerPlus proved to be a tough-as-nails workhorse, and in the hands of the new generation of motor-heads and speed-demons of the day– it was force to be reckoned with on any road or racetrack.

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1919 Indian Military Powerplus– the motorcycle that helped the US win WWI.

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1918 Indian Powerplus motorcycle advertisement.

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There were major forces at this time impacting Indian’s technology aspirations.  Manufacturing preparations for WWI were gearing up, and production resources for commercial production were limited.

1920 officially ushered in a significant decline in domestic motorcycle sales to make matters worse. Thankfully by this time, Indian had become a major exporter, chiefly to the UK, where events like the Isle of Man TT were dominated by smaller displacement motorcycles.  Franklin’s Irish heritage surely played some part in Indian’s efforts to not only dominate Europe’s racing circuits, but also aggressively go after more market share overseas (a point soon made moot when England introduced a steep import tariff in 1925 to support Triumph, Norton, and other local motorcycle manufacturers).

In 1922, the US National Championship sanctioning officials, motivated by a public outcry over the ever-increasing motorcycle fatalities, introduced the toned-down 30.50 cubic inch (500 cc) class of motorcycle racing.  It was a clear attempt to slow motorcycle performance– as speeds were scarily lapping rider safety advancements.

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“Grandma Beal” AKA Ruth Beal on an Indian Powerplus

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Indian set-out to dominate Harley Davidson in the small displacement wars by throwing its engineering staff at the new field by developing new, potent smaller engines– where as Harley’s answer seemed to be to lop a cylinder off their standard 61 ci, two cam engine.  By 1925, the 4-valve 30.5 ci (500 cc) powered Indians handily surpassed the H-D “half-twin,” giving them 4 out of 5 US National Championships in their class.

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Technology aside, Indian would soon have Harley Davidson beat in another department– Looks.  Indian created a strong following with iconic and stunning design.  The new era of Charles B. Franklin designed street-bikes soon became known for their sweeping, deeply valanced fenders and signature Indian-head ornament on the front fender. Indians were the ‘leader of the pack’ in terms of looks and style– whose design cues are still fiercely coveted  by today’s motorcycle purists. Undoubtedly one of the most loved (and oft imitated) trademarks of the old Indians are the incredible multi-toned, high quality paints jobs that began to appear in 1929, when Mr. E. Paul DuPont of paint company fame, became President of the motorcycle company.

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To be continued… next up, the Scout, Chief & Big Chief.

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Related TSY Posts:

INDIAN | AMERICA’S FIRST MOTORCYCLE THE EARLY YEARS OF COOL INNOVATION

HOG WILD OVER HARLEY DAVIDSON | THE “HOG BOYS” OF EARLY H-D HISTORY

CROCKER MOTORCYCLES | THE TOUGH AMERICAN SUPER-BIKE THAT CLIPPED HARLEY’S WINGS

A RICH LEGACY OF REBELLION | TRIUMPH MOTORCYCLES

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5 thoughts on “INDIAN | AMERICA’S FIRST MOTORCYCLE – THE GOLDEN POWERPLUS ERA

  1. Pingback: INDIAN | AMERICA’S FIRST MOTORCYCLE THE EARLY YEARS OF COOL INNOVATION « The Selvedge Yard

  2. @ Josh: That was my first thought too. I wonder. I love these columns about Indians. I’d love to have one of the Indians from their heyday. They’ve restarted the company again (3rd time’s a charm, right?) in North Carolina; I haven’t heard if they’re doing any good or not. The team that “rescued” Indian also did the same for Cris-Craft. http://www.indianmotorcycle.com/ – if you’re curious.

  3. Great read! When will you publish a magazine?
    And I just found out that Oscar Hedstrom came from the same area of Sweden as I live right now…

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